A second time shortlisted contestant for the NLNG Nigeria Literature Prize–which she had earlier won in 2012 for her striking prose narrative, On Black Sisters’ Street–Chika Unigwe is a widely acclaimed Nigerian-Belgian author with an impressive oeuvre, including the Night Dancer, one of the three finalists in contest for the 2016 Prize. In this interview, Unigwe, a member of the Board of Trustees of pan-African literary initiative, Writivism and a recently appointed judge of the 2017 Manbooker Prize, speaks to PREMIUM TIMES about literature and the universe that gives some of her work life.
PREMIUM TIMES: Already you have several titles to your name out of which On Black Sisters’ Street won the NLNG Nigeria Literature Prize. Some of the lines in the Acknowledgement page reveal the debt you owe to pre-publication research in this book. To what extent would you say this helped your understanding of the plot of a fictional work and the writing of the novel?
Chika: The research helped me to understand–to a certain extent–the lives of the characters I was writing about. Learning to write you can only do by reading (and writing). Research adds depth to the narrative but no amount of research is substitute for extensive reading (and writing).
PREMIUM TIMES: Can you share your experience of writing Night Dancer, that’s currently in the running for the 2016 NLNG Nigeria Literature Prize for Prose?
Chika: I always start writing with a lot of trepidation: what if this story I have imagined doesn’t come out right on paper? What if my characters do not cooperate with my vision for/of them? I also experience–when I am writing–a lot of frustrated moments. I suffer from a chronic case of writer’s anxiety. Writing Night Dancer was no different.
The same way as I don’t consider myself the spokesperson of Ndi Igbo or the spokesperson of mothers or the spokesperson of all mothers of sons. It would be ridiculous of me to imagine when I am writing that I am doing so as THE representation of every other woman. Also a huge responsibility.
PREMIUM TIMES: An earlier winner of the NLNG Nigerian Literature Prize for Prose with the book, Yellow-Yellow, Kaine Agary said she was concerned about the predicament of the multi-racial child being fathered by expatriates in the Niger Delta in Nigeria, but your fictional works focus on the experiences of the Nigerian migrant sex workers in Europe. Beyond fiction, what needs to be done besides the rather cosmetic interventions of Nigerian First Ladies, since Maryam Babangida’s time, on this issue?
Chika: One novel of mine deals with sex migration. Night Dancer doesn’t. So, it is hardly accurate to say that my works focus on this theme. I have several anthologised and published short stories, which do not deal with migrant sex workers. Having said that, fiction helps shed a light on issues or aspects of them that people may not be aware of. After On Black Sisters’ Street came out, I was invited by an anti-human trafficking NGO in Austria (run by a Nigerian woman) to join them on a huge campaign in Nigeria. There were delegates from the six or so European countries with the highest numbers of Nigerian sex workers. The team from the UK told me that their policemen read On Black Sisters’ Street to help them understand the motivations of the women better.
There are NGOs on the ground in Nigeria devoted to rehabilitating deported sex workers and devoted to early intervention to halt sex migration. There are also many NGOs in the core host countries working to encourage trafficked (whether willingly or unwillingly) women to turn in their pimps.
PREMIUM TIMES: When was the beginning of serious creative writing for you?
Chika: The first time I was paid for a short story (the BBC, 1999).
Apart from the very practical reason that there are no Igbo publishers making offers to me, it would be a pointless exercise. Who would I be writing for? How many Igbo newspapers are there? Go to any of our Igbo cities and tell me how many Igbo children you hear speaking Igbo.
PREMIUM TIMES: Some writers say you do not have to experience your subject matter personally or physically to write about it. How does it work for you as a fiction writer who has had to undertake extensive research before starting to write?
Chika: You don’t have to be a sex worker to write about sex workers. You can ask questions (which I did) or read. You don’t have to experience rape to write about rape. You must know as a human being what it feels like to. Whatever you are writing about, whether set in an imagined world or in a world you are familiar with, you have to present it in a way that your readers believe they can trust you with it.
PREMIUM TIMES: Antjie Krog, the South African writer, poet and author of the memorable Country of My Skull and, of course, A Change of Tongue, where she felt called upon to say why she has chosen to write the latter book and future ones in the English language as opposed to Afrikaans, her mother tongue. But your own choice to expand the linguistic possibilities of communicating with your readers is different. Your first novel, De Feniks (The Phoenix) was published in Dutch in 2005, which made it the first book by a Flemish writer of African origin, and, your second novel, On Black Sisters’ Street, was also first published in Dutch with the title, Fata Morgana. Have you ever thought about writing and publishing in Igbo?
Chika: No. Apart from the very practical reason that there are no Igbo publishers making offers to me, it would be a pointless exercise. Who would I be writing for? How many Igbo newspapers are there? Go to any of our Igbo cities and tell me how many Igbo children you hear speaking Igbo. I was listening to an Igbo programme on ABS Awka sometime in the summer and hardly a single person who called in or was on the panel spoke Igbo 80 percent of the time. In fact, one of the panelists spoke English a lot more than he spoke Igbo. It is a tragedy and the best way to remedy it is to reintroduce Igbo into the school curriculum. We have to take the teaching of Igbo seriously
PREMIUM TIMES: Do you actually write in English and translate to Dutch? Or, is it the other way? From your experience so far, is the author’s linguistic prowess enriched by being involved in translating her own works? Does anything of significance to the story get lost in translation?
I met Flora Nwapa as a kid and I remember wanting to be a writer because she was.
Chika: No. I find it very difficult to translate my own works. Writing it the first time is hard enough.
PREMIUM TIMES: Are we to expect a sequel to your essay, “Losing My Voice”, with a title like, “My Voice Regained”? You are a writer, a Nigerian-Belgian, wife to a Belgian man, and mother of four; how have you managed these roles alongside the quirky challenges that writing entails?
Chika: I don’t write sequels. My husband and I are hugely supportive of each other. We encourage each other’s dreams. I bring him his chai latte when he is working and I have time; he brings me my coffee when I’m working and he has time. We are respectful of each other’s personal time. He cooks when he can. I cook when I can. There is room for both of us to grow, to breathe and to be.
PREMIUM TIMES: Here’s a cast list of widely recognised African female authors of an earlier generation, who, much like you, have made, in varying degrees, the female perspective the primary concern in their works: Nadine Gordimer, Mabel Segun, Flora Nwapa, Bessie Head, Ama Ata Aidoo, El-sadawi, Mariama Ba, Buchi Emecheta. Did any one of them inspire you personally as a writer? Or, did any influence your work in some indirect way through your encounter with their books?
Chika: These are writers I have read, enjoyed and learnt from. I met Flora Nwapa as a kid and I remember wanting to be a writer because she was.
PREMIUM TIMES: Even as legitimate and necessary as your choices of themes in your novels are, have you ever conceived your role as a writer in gender terms? As a spokesperson for one particular gender?
Chika: No. The same way as I don’t consider myself the spokesperson of Ndi Igbo or the spokesperson of mothers or the spokesperson of all mothers of sons. It would be ridiculous of me to imagine when I am writing that I am doing so as THE representation of every other woman. Also a huge responsibility.
I think anyone with commonsense feels overawed sometimes by the very tragic things happening around us. Writing is a way for me to make sense of it all but at the same time to not feel completely helpless in the face of it all.
PREMIUM TIMES: Chika Unigwe, you are a nominee for this year’s NLNG Nigerian Literature Prize and also a previous winner of the prize, and you have so generously described the novel by a fellow nominee, Elnathan John’s Born On A Tuesday, in these words: “ Igbo people have a saying about a little piece of dry meat that fills the mouth. John’s book is that meat: a relatively short novel with an extraordinary density, and we, his readers, are grateful.” You sounded really wowed and genuinely impressed. Do you share the writer, Molara Wood’s sentiments that, “This is the Northern Nigerian narrative we have been waiting for. It will stand as a testimony to these times”?
Chika: Yes. I was really wowed. I wouldn’t have said so otherwise.
PREMIUM TIMES: You have been familiar with the fictional work of another fellow nominee, Abubakar Adamu Ibrahim before his debut novel was published recently. What are your views on Season of Crimson Blossoms?
Chika: Ibrahim is a gifted writer who certainly deserves his spot on the shortlist.
PREMIUM TIMES: The 2015 Nobel Laureate For Literature wrote “The Unwomanly Face Of War” where she rendered the emotional traumas felt by women when their spouses are lost to war. Do you sometimes feel overawed by it all? In a milieu where the undreamed and the unimaginable have happened with tragic frequency, and reality has become so ‘ungraspably’ surreal, how is it possible to invent fiction when reality itself has overawed fiction? How do you create fiction at the very point of reality’s unremitting un-realness? Especially concerning the subject-matter very dear to your he(art)?
Chika: I think anyone with common sense feels overawed sometimes by the very tragic things happening around us. Writing is a way for me to make sense of it all but at the same time to not feel completely helpless in the face of it all.
Another part of the compilation by Contributing Editor on Arts & Culture, Chiedu Ezeanah, the next installments will focus on what the two other authors have to say about their lives and art.
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